Emails filed in federal district court this week provide the first behind-the-scenes look at the influence advocacy groups had in pushing House Bill 1523 through the legislative process.
The documents show that Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom not only drafted the legislation, as previously reported by Mississippi Today, but also approached Gov. Phil Bryant’s office with the idea for a religious-freedom bill over a year ago.
Another group, Jackson-based conservative think tank Mississippi Center for Public Policy, appeared to be heavily involved with corralling support from religious groups in the state. The center forwarded about a dozen letters of support for HB 1523 to the governor’s office in early March 2016.
Jameson Taylor, Mississippi Center’s vice president for policy, sent an email to three people on Bryant’s staff April 5, the morning the governor signed the law, stating “it is good politics to defend religious liberty.”
“If this bill fails it will severely cripple the entire fight for religious liberty nationwide,” Taylor wrote.
“I will also add that, having worked in North Carolina, Pat McCrory is not known for being super conservative. But the NC governor is running for re-election and he knows it is good politics to defend religious liberty.”
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves overturned House Bill 1523 minutes before it was set to take effect July 1. Two weeks ago, the governor appealed this decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He also asked Judge Reeves for a stay of his decision that would allow the law to go into effect. Wednesday night, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Roberta Kaplan, filed her motion opposing this stay.
These emails were released as exhibits to the plaintiff’s motion, which argues that House Bill 1523 is rooted in Christian arguments against same-sex marriage. If this is true, it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says that government cannot sanction one set of religious beliefs while ignoring others.
Gov. Bryant, however, argued in his request for a stay that “HB 1523 is constitutional — and it is indistinguishable from federal statutes that protect the conscientious scruples of pacifists and abortion opponents.”
Kaplan contends that these emails prove the opposite.
“Groups always get involved in drafting and supporting legislation; there’s nothing surprising about that. But the fact that a group that calls itself a ‘ministry,’ as the ADF does, drafted the bill, promoted the bill and drafted the governor’s signing statements, is obviously relevant to the question of whether it constitutes an impermissible establishment of religion,” Kaplan said.
The emails indicate that Alliance Defending Freedom contacted Gov. Bryant’s office long before the 2016 legislative session, and even before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
As ADF has pointed out, there is nothing unusual or illegal about their correspondence with the governor’s office. Outside groups often provide elected officials with model legislation they hope will become law.
“What is striking about how these communications have been positioned is that opposing counsel is essentially making the argument that if a person or group is not ideologically lock-stepping according to a certain narrow set of moral convictions and viewpoints, the ‘heretics’ and their ideas must be run out of public life,” said Greg Scott, vice president of communications at ADF.
“So much for tolerance, diversity, and inclusion.”
On June 24, 2015, two days before the decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, emails show that an attorney for the ADF, Austin Nimocks, offered to Bryant’s office a “model executive order that would prevent state governments from discriminating against their citizens because of their views about or actions concerning marriage.”
Nimocks followed by asking Drew Snyder, an attorney for the governor, to run the idea by Gov. Bryant. “If you think this is a worthy idea, feel free to share this with the Governor Bryant. It could provide an appropriate response to the upcoming Supreme Court decision on marriage (whatever that may be),” Nimocks wrote to Snyder.
Nimocks attached two documents. The first detailed potential consequences to anyone with religious beliefs for opposing gay marriage. The second was the eight-page “executive order,” the language of which would provide nearly half the text of HB 1523.
ADF did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday, but previously downplayed its role in creating House Bill 1523, telling Mississippi Today in April that the group “has been asked to advise many state legislators, including in Mississippi, on the constitutionality of religious liberty, government discrimination and privacy legislation as they work to affirm and uphold citizens’ fundamental freedoms.”
The documents reveal a deeper level of involvement. On March 31, the day after the Mississippi Senate passed House Bill 1523, ADF offered public-relations assistance to the governor’s office.
“Obviously there will likely be significant opposition so we want to help come behind you all however we can with national support and cover as well as activating folks in the state,” wrote ADF attorney Kellie Fiedorek to Snyder, offering help with “PR/messaging/support.”
Whitney Lipscomb, another Bryant attorney, sent a draft of the governor’s signing statement to Fiedorek, who responded with two versions in an attempt, Fiedorek said, to write in Bryant’s voice.
While the Arizona group finessed the bill’s language and public presentation, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy rallied troops on the ground at home. The emails show that MCPP was heavily involved with coordinating support among more than a dozen religious groups in the state.
As the deadline for the bill’s passage approached, MCPP’s Taylor peppered the governor’s office with documents emphasizing what he said was widespread support for HB 1523.
In a March 28 email, two days before the Senate passed the bill, Taylor provided the governor’s office with “talking points” regarding the bill and a list of supporters. With one exception — the Mississippi Center for Public Policy — each of the organizations included as endorsing the bill identifies as Christian.
Among them were two Christian adoption and foster-care services, a Christian drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility and the Catholic dioceses of Jackson and Biloxi.
Gov. Bryant’s communications office did not comment on the emails. Forest Thigpen, MCPP’s president, also did not respond to a request for comment.